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UF/IFAS Pilot Program Focuses On Good Food Habits For Teens

Cindy Spence

Linda Bobroff (352) 392-1895

GAINESVILLE—For teenagers who snack their way through the day, living off candy, chips, cookies and soda, University of Florida researchers have a message: Read a nutrition label.

What’s more, they’ll be happy to teach teens how to read labels and make more earth-friendly choices, with a new pilot program developed at UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Called Smart Food Shopping for Teens, the program covers the basics of good nutrition and environmentally sound grocery shopping. It targets children at a malleable age, before bad teen eating practices turn into hard-to-break adult habits.

UF Associate Professor and extension nutritionist Linda Bobroff said a trial of the program showed that teens are interested in learning how to read nutrition labels and make healthy food choices once they are aware of how their food selections affect their health and the environment.

That’s not to say they won’t wolf down an occasional snack cake and soft drink, and that’s OK. The program doesn’t call for a ban on junk food, Bobroff said. The emphasis is on balance.

“The objective is for them to enjoy eating while making healthy food choices,” Bobroff said. “We did taste tests to encourage them to enjoy eating for pleasure and good health.”

The program was designed for high school family and consumer science classes by graduate student Dana Larson under Bobroff’s supervision. Larson now works in the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) supplemental food program in UF’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Her six-lesson program for teens includes information on food groups and servings, the importance of breakfast and enviroshopping.

“Studies have shown that kids who go to school with an empty stomach do more poorly on exams than kids who go to school on a full stomach,” Larson said. “Eating breakfast helps them maintain their attention span, too.”

Larson said healthy eating patterns in adolescence promote optimal health, growth and intellectual development. They also can reduce risks of immediate health problems, such as obesity, eating disorders, and dental caries, and long-term health problems such as coronary heart disease, cancer and stroke.

School health programs also can give adolescents the skills, social support and environmental reinforcement needed to adopt lifelong eating patterns consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the Food Guide Pyramid, Larson said.

“These students are going to have to make purchasing decisions for themselves on a regular basis once they leave home, so this gets them at an age where they’re still in a controlled environment and can start to think about these things,” Larson said. “Then, once they do leave home, they’re ready to go the grocery store, read labels and buy products that are both something they enjoy eating but also healthy and good for the environment.”

Larson included an enviroshopping lesson in the program because grocery store purchases affect environmental as well as personal health.

“When you make choices in the supermarket, a lot of it is packaging and you need to consider what you are taking home because you will have the responsibility of getting rid of it,” Larson said. “So we encourage analyzing the packaging before buying it, or precycling.”

Bobroff said the program is unusual because similar materials are not readily available for teen audiences. Targeting teens is important because many teens avoid milk and vegetables, skip breakfast and live on snacks. Young women also need to be particularly aware of getting enough calcium since adolescence is a bone-building phase for them, Bobroff said.

“We saw a real need for this nutritional and environmental learning, and it’s a nice mix,” Bobroff said. “You don’t see a lot of good eating habits at this age. Young women, particularly, are afraid of food, afraid of fat and afraid of getting fat. So part of our message was to encourage them to enjoy their food.”

The program ends with a grocery store scavenger hunt, in which students scour the supermarket for the makings of healthy meals and snacks that are not overpackaged. Bobroff said the knowledge in the previous five lessons showed up in the students’ grocery carts.

“Adolescents are still developing habits at this point in their lives,” Bobroff said. “It’s easier to teach them good habits than to change bad habits later.”

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